As spring turns into summer, this is a time for many of us here in Missoula and Montana to think about Do It Yourself (DIY) projects. DIY, in my family, usually means things like landscaping or building a deck. But for many, it encompasses a wide variety of activities that can include cooking, arts and crafts, car maintenance, and outdoors adventures.

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DIY can be a great source of empowerment. Most of us already DIY most of our own food, so much so that the idea of calling it DIY is a bit silly. But there are folks out there who do not learn to cook even simple things as they grow up. To them, even boiling an egg or making rice in a rice-cooker can be intimidating (full disclosure, I didn’t grow up making either of these things and still find myself googling the instructions each time I make boiled eggs or rice).

Beyond these, in the course of my adult life, I’ve learned to cook an amazing array of dishes that I didn’t grow up with, simply by learning from friends or the internet. Sushi, great Indian food, sourdough breads, homemade granola, hummus, and yogurt have all been added to my skillset.

Beyond food, I have learned a lot over the years about backpacking, solo travel, and more. Whatever it is that you are thinking about doing yourself, a particular mindset can be of benefit. That mindset is one of openness and receptivity, a willingness to make mistakes, and to learn both from mistakes and the wisdom of experts.

Kant on Daring to Know

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While not often discussed in your average introduction to philosophy class, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a bit of a Do-It-Yourselfer. In terms of ethics, he thought that we all have a good internal moral compass that just gets distorted by various social and economic problems. If we can overcome these problems, he believed, we can live moral lives.

One of the ways he saw us becoming more deeply entrenched in dependence on others was in taking care of ourselves. He wrote a famous essay called “What Is Enlightenment?” as part of a national competition in the late 18th century. He began the essay:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

. . . If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind–among them the entire fair sex–should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous.

This is DIY advocacy in its purest form. He was decrying the inability of so many around him to think for themselves. Most people, particularly women, were being actively blocked in their efforts to become more autonomous in their lives. He warned that the “guardians,” who in his day would have been mostly government and religious leaders and bureaucrats, were scaring the rest of us into submission:

First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

Limits and Lessons

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Certainly, there are limits to how DIY we want to be. I had a girlfriend a number of years ago who volunteered to remove a cyst that was getting rather large on my head. There were, after all, some rather gruesome DIY videos on YouTube and assurances that with some iodine and a sterilized razor, it wasn’t the most difficult thing in the world. I opted instead to see a doctor.

When I was younger, I also took pride in doing a fair amount of my own car maintenance. Today, I keep that at a minimum too. I know that I can do a lot if I so choose. But I also know that the trade-off in terms of hours-to-cost makes it wiser to entrust experts.

Currently, I’m contemplating building a deck in my back yard. I’d love it to be two-stories high so I can sit up high to watch sunsets. I know that many people DIY this. But I also know that a major mistake on such a project could cost enormous amounts of money or even get me badly injured.

There are also a lot of swindlers who will pray on DIY’ers. In the early months of the pandemic, these people came out in droves to sell their favorite cures or untested preventive equipment. In times like this, it is often our guardians that are best suited to wisely guide us.

The lessons from Kant and similar DIY-minded thinkers are also important. Throughout our lives, we will encounter people who will tell us we can’t accomplish things. Maybe it is because they failed when they tried. Maybe it’s because they’ll feel worse off if we are successful.

It’s often good to hear these folks out. But it’s also often good to still try if we think we can do new things for ourselves. And we should try knowing, as Kant did, that we’ll stumble. We will make mistakes. Our early efforts will be imperfect, perhaps even terrible. Just as I contemplate the potential disaster of building a deck myself, offset by the joy of having built something with my own two hands, other DIY’ers with projects large and small face similar choices. But we can take joy in knowing that we have the choice.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.